EXCERPTS - 6
Alfred Hitchcock's STAGE FRIGHT
[Editor's note. The Art of Alfred Hitchcock was Dr Spoto's first Hitchcock book, full of perceptive essays on the individual films. Read this essay on Stage Fright attentively and you will be amply rewarded. Spoto is a prolific biographer and scholar, author of more than twenty books, and is a Hitchcock authority. His forthcoming book from Hutchinson is Spellbound by Beauty: Alfred Hitchcock and His Leading Ladies.]
I hold the world but as the world, Gratiano;
A stage, where every man must play a part,
And mine a sad one.
THE MERCHANT OF VENICE
THAT INTRIGUED me is that it was a story about the theater," Hitchcock
once said. Produced in England just after Under Capricorn from a novel by Selwyn Jepson called Man Running,
the screenplay by Whitfield Cook concerns Eve Gill (Jane Wyman), an
aspiring actress at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, whose boyfriend
Jonathan Cooper (Richard Todd) seeks her aid in establishing his
innocence. He insists that he is being framed for murdering the
husband of actress Charlotte Inwood (Marlene Dietrich), who took
advantage of his infatuation for her. Eve disguises herself as a
maid, gains Charlotte's confidence, and with the help of Inspector
Wilfred Smith (Michael Wilding), nearly proves Charlotte was the
murderer. But she finally plays her role so well that Jonathan is
in fact revealed to be the killer. By this time Eve has
transferred her affections to Wilfred Smith, and when Jonathan is killed
trying to escape, the final frames suggest she may at last find a true
relationship with the inspector.
One of Hitchcock's least appreciated works, Stage Fright annoys
some viewers because of its complex plot, its surprises, twists, double
twists - and, most of all, by its bold use of an opening false
flashback, an account told by a murderer (and seen by us as he tells it
to another) and therefore finally revealed as a lie. There's no
doubt that this is a film demanding the most careful attention - but
Hitchcock always deserves this attention, and our enrichment derives
proportionately. Stage Fright is in fact a major comic work, entirely worthy of the various significant talents who contributed to it.
curtain of an English theater slowly rises under the credits, revealing
not a stage set, but real-life London in full motion; when the curtain
is fully raised, we're pitched at once into the action of the
story. Immediately, the distinctions between appearance and
reality, between theater life and street life, begin to blur.
Everything that follows is an interconnected series of ruses, costumes,
lies and artifices, and everyone in the story plays a variety of
real-life roles - a favorite Hitchcock motif, exploited as early
as The 39 Steps. As in Hitchcock's darker romances,
appearances and identities slip and slide. Nothing is certain in
the world of disguises, performances, matinées and theatrical garden
scene of flight from the police - in Eve Gill's open
roadster - establishes the film's tripartite structure, a series of
ever-slower journeys until the final stasis. The film is built,
in fact, like a rallentando - a gradual slowing down - from that first
chase to the midpoint of the more leisurely ride in a taxi (the love
scene between Eve and Wilfred), to the final motionless "ride" of Eve
and Jonathan in the unused eighteenth-century stage-prop carriage.
Within this framework, Eve, a young novice actress, is disabused of her
belief in the glamour of theater life and - precisely by successful
multiple role-playing - first endangers herself and at last confronts
the shifting and specious nature of her own romantic illusions.
In this regard, it's crucial that at the end Eve must go under the
stage, to confront a more paralyzing fear and to invent an ingenious
acting ploy whereby she disarms a pathological killer and saves
herself. Real stage fright, in other words, is something beneath
the stage, deeper than mere onstage panic. Thus the melodramatic
play in which Eve is first seen rehearsing at the Royal Academy of
Dramatic Art (and in which she seems to be egregiously incompetent
indeed) at last becomes a "thriller" from which she must extricate
herself by a superlative performance.
Charlotte too is a performer, her demented lover Cooper is a performer,
and everyone in the story plays roles. "You're an actress.
You're playing a part. No nerves when you're on," Jonathan tells
Charlotte (although in the lying flashback), just after she begs him to
"draw the curtains, Johnny!" The scene points forward to the final
horrific moment, when a stagehand is asked to "lower the iron curtain,"
effectively cutting off Jonathan's escape (and by implication, his
is also a role-player, in a portrait charmingly created by scenarist
Whitfield Cook and engagingly rendered by the incomparable Scottish
actor Alastair Sim (whose first name is misspelled on both opening
and closing credits).
"You're just dying to get into a part in this, and you know you are," Eve tells him.
"A part in
this melodramatic play, you mean," he replies, in a triumphant comic
scene at his seaside cottage. "That's the way you're treating it,
Eve - as if it were a play you were acting in at the Academy.
Everything seems a fine acting role when you're stage-struck, doesn't
it, my dear? Here you have a plot, an interesting cast, even a
costume [the blood-soaked dress]. Unfortunately, Eve, in this real
and earnest life we must face the situation in all its bearings … [or
else] you'll spend a few years in Holloway prison, meditating on the
folly of transmuting melodrama into real life."
should note, is different things to different people. To Jonathan
she's a patient and helpful friend whose love for him he conveniently
exploits. To her father she's an apprentice actress ("You're my
audience, Father! I wish you'd give me a little applause now and
then" - which he later does, after Charlotte is unmasked by Eve).
To Wilfred, she's an innocent actress. To Nellie Good (Kay Walsh),
she's a newspaper reporter wishing to disguise herself as the dresser's
cousin, to gain access to Charlotte. And to Charlotte she's
Nellie's cousin Doris - whose name Charlotte can't quite seem to get
right (she calls her Phyllis, Mavis and Elsie).
a performer on a deeper level, too - her widowhood, especially, becomes
her most pointed attempt at self-glamorizing ("Couldn't we work in a
little color?" she asks about the funereal black outfit. "Or let
it plunge just a little in front?"). And she directs others - Eve
especially - in their forms of address, their tones of voice, and their
we learn the truth about Jonathan, which Charlotte tells the police and
which Eve overhears. Charlotte is trying to exonerate herself
from involvement in the crime, but what she says of Jonathan is true:
"I suppose I
shouldn't have seen him as often as I did, but I didn't realize how
madly infatuated he was with me. I just didn't realize.
You'll never know how much I blame myself for all this. When my
husband came back from New York last week and I told Johnny I couldn't
see him, he kept on phoning me. He wouldn't let me alone.
Oh, maybe if I'd agreed to see him he wouldn't have done this dreadful
focused rendition of the Cole Porter song "The Laziest Gal in Town" is
the film's clearest tip-off to the resolution of the plot; Hitchcock
never, after all, merely inserts a song into a film without a powerful
structural reason: "It's not that I shouldn't, it's not that I wouldn't,
and you know that it's not that I couldn't - it's simply because I'm
the laziest gal in town," she sings in a triumphant proclamation with
multiple meanings. Our first thought about the lyrics is obvious,
but later we realize they're also a pointed reference to what she did
with Jonathan, exploiting his fanatical devotion to the extreme that he
killed her husband.
But on its
most serious level, this leisurely comic tale is but another
Hitchcockian reflection on romantic illusion. In this case, Eve's
refusal to believe the guilt of the man she's in love with (in spite of
overwhelming evidence) makes this film a kind of comic female version of
The Paradine Case. The crucial moment in this regard
occurs when Eve's affections begin to shift from Jonathan to Wilfred,
and this happens when Jonathan, seeking lodging with the Gills, embraces
Eve. Convinced of (what she thinks is) the ineradicable bond
between Jonathan and Charlotte, she gazes at the piano and we (with her,
from her viewpoint) remember the romantic piano melody played by
Wilfred (shades of The Paradine Case again). It's
additionally important, therefore, that this sequence is at once
followed by Eve's ride in the taxi with Wilfred, accompanied by the same
music; it's one of the gentlest and sweetest love scenes in the